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National spotlight has Alaska town uncomfortable
Anchorage Daily News


September 19, 2005

KETCHIKAN, Alaska - Mike Salazar, the Ketchikan borough mayor, had just fielded a call from Reader's Digest. Another reporter wanting to talk about "the Bridge to Nowhere."

The proposed $315 million bridge from this small Alaska city to a neighboring, nearly uninhabited island has become a sensation. It's made Ketchikan famous, but not in a way Salazar likes.

"It makes me frustrated that we haven't been able to communicate our need well enough for the rest of the United States to understand it," said the mayor, who was first elected to the town council in 1976.

"Everybody calls it a bridge to nowhere. ... It's a bridge to our future."

Alaska's southernmost city has managed to give liberal radio host Garrison Keillor and conservative firebrand Pat Buchanan something to agree on.

Both men, and a legion of columnists, entertainers and talk-show hosts, have ridiculed the bridge. It's become known in newspapers from Pryor Creek, Okla., to London as "the Bridge to Nowhere."

It has been offered as a prime example of congressional pork and lately has been blamed for the devastation Hurricane Katrina inflicted on New Orleans. Buchanan, who won the 1996 Republican presidential primary election in Alaska, said in his nationally syndicated column:

"Before Bush went off on vacation, he signed a $286 billion highway bill containing $24 billion in pork - among which was a quarter-billion-dollar bridge from Ketchikan, Alaska, population 8,000, to Gravina Island, population 50. Had half that sum been spent fortifying the levees of Lake Pontchartrain, New Orleans would not be underwater today."

In Ketchikan nowadays, there's evidence of bridge guilt, with a few people suggesting money be given back and used for hurricane relief.

But the mayor said that's far from the prevailing view in this rain-soaked town of tourist shops, totem poles and fishermen's bars. Ketchikan is wedged like other Southeast Alaska towns in between the mountains and the sea. The borough population, including the city itself, is about 13,000 people.

Salazar said the bridge to the 20-mile-long Gravina Island will give Ketchikan just what it needs - access to flat, unoccupied land that can be developed.

In that respect, "nowhere" is exactly where Ketchikan is trying to get.

The bridge is a huge undertaking. It will be more than a mile long in two sections. It will soar 200 feet over the east channel of Tongass Narrows, landing on Pennock Island and then taking off again, 120 above the west channel to reach Gravina.

In addition to the price tag, it comes with an annual maintenance and repair cost estimated to average more than $1 million.

To get started, Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, as chairman of the House Transportation Committee, earmarked more than $223 million for the project in the national highway bill that Congress passed this summer. Young argues that Lower 48 states were able to grow with federal money for roads and bridges and it is Alaska's turn.

It is not exactly free money. More than 65 percent of it will be deducted from Alaska's share of the general highway funds that pay for projects statewide.

Also, the Legislature must still contribute about $63 million. Bridge proponents expect to get the state money this spring. The state would put the project out for bid next summer. Construction could begin the following winter, and the bridge could ready for use four years after that.

Young dismisses the bridge-to-nowhere critics. They are "just smoking pot," he has said. But here in Ketchikan, it's easy to find people who think this is a bad idea.

Opponents include perhaps Ketchikan's best-known resident, artist Ray Troll, whose surreal fish-themed art and T-shirts with slogans such as "Spawn Till You Die" are widely known.

Troll, taking a break from drawing piranhas in his downtown studio, said the bridge "seems absolutely ridiculous."

Troll said he believes that, if there were an election right now on using the money for the bridge or for building up the New Orleans levees, almost everyone in town would say no to the bridge.

Ketchikan city Mayor Bob Weinstein said talk of returning the money is silly.

He said hurricane response is a separate national responsibility. The transportation funds come from the national gasoline tax. Weinstein said he hasn't seen any other state trying to give back its portion.


Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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